“Brute! You brute! You beast!” Gloria exclaimed. “You haven’t changed, have you? You haven’t changed a bit. You’re still the little Jew who sold rags and scrap metal in New York, from a sack on your back.”
“And what about you? Do you remember Kishinev, and that little shop of your money-lender father’s in the Jewish quarter? You weren’t Gloria then, were you? Well? Havke! Havke!”
The person calling his wife by her Yiddish name, Havke, is David Golder, hero, or more correctly antihero, of Irene Nemirovsky’s remarkable novel of the same name. First published in 1929 in Paris, and now in a brilliant new English translation by Sandra Smith, “David Golder” (Vintage, 2007) has sparked controversy in France, Britain and the United States — from Le Monde and the Times Literary Supplement to American Web sites that focus on Jewish issues — as to whether Nemirovsky, an author of Jewish origin, was or was not anti-Semitic.
Nemirovsky was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Kiev (present-day Ukraine) in 1903. Her father was a banker. While living in St. Petersburg as a girl she was taught French by a French governess. The family fled Russia after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, settling eventually in France.
By age 23, Nemirovsky was married to another banker, Michel Epstein, and was soon to publish her first novel, which she wrote in French. It was “David Golder,” however, that rocketed her to immediate acclaim when it was published in 1929; and during the 1930s, more than 10 other novels and numerous shorter works also appeared in France.
Despite these achievements, the French government refused to grant Nemirovsky citizenship. She and her husband converted to Catholicism in 1939, but this was not to save them. On July 13, 1942, she was arrested and transported to Auschwitz, where she died of typhus five weeks later. Her husband was arrested not long after and was killed in an Auschwitz gas chamber on Nov. 6.
Traumatized for 50 years
Paradoxically, however, this new English-language edition of “David Golder” would not have seen the light of day had it not been for the manuscript of another book Nemirovsky was working on at the time of her arrest. She managed to pass this to her elder daughter, Denise, before she left home for good.
Denise, born in 1929, and her sister, Elisabeth, born in 1937, spent the years of the war in hiding in France. Both were too traumatized by the war and the loss of their parents to examine the manuscript for an unbelievable 50 years. Then, upon finally reading it in the 1990s, Denise realized that it was a masterpiece of fiction. Published in France in 2004 under the title “Suite Francaise,” the book became an enormous bestseller there and in many countries around the world — in the process providing the impetus for the new English translation of “David Golder.”
When I read “Suite Francaise” last year, I was overwhelmed by its descriptive power and stylistic beauty. It portrays a number of families fleeing Paris as it is being occupied by German soldiers. But the really stunning thing about this novel is that it is written in real time, and its author — who writes without vindictiveness — had no way of knowing the outcome of the war. It also lacks any tinge of the self-righteousness that imbues so much postwar literature about World War II. The story is, of course, fiction; but it reads like a documentary enriched with metaphor.
“David Golder” is a work of equal effect. Golder is a banker who, at 68, is witnessing a diminishing of his financial acumen and physical prowess. He has spent his life amassing a fortune, and for what? His business partner, whom he has greedily manipulated, commits suicide. His attitude toward this is “good riddance.” His venal wife, Gloria, and his dim-witted, utterly selfish daughter, Joyce, despise him. In fact, they are as hideously self-obsessed as he: To these three people there is no such thing as love and devotion, only covetousness and inordinate greed.
Gloria, who has had lovers over the years, attacks the dying David over and over again.
“Could anyone love you? . . . Joyce just loves your money, her as well, you fool! . . . While you were close to death she was out dancing, do you remember? . . . She’ll be dancing on your grave, you fool!”
“I don’t give a damn” is David’s reply, and that is the truth. This is a portrait of a man whose only delight in life comes from making money. Business, as Nemirovsky describes it, is his morphine.
In fact, “David Golder” provides a clear view for us of capitalism as it existed in the mid-1920s in Europe and the United States. But it also affords a lesson for today. Golder’s money was made chiefly in oil. Is such money-grubbing speculation and devotion to lucre any different today? Change telegrams to e-mails, update the period details and “David Golder” reads as if it were set in 2007.
Published in rightwing periodicals
Miriam Anissimov, a biographer of the Jewish-Italian chemist, Auschwitz survivor and author Primo Levi (1919-87), has accused Nemirovsky of treating Jews as belonging to a “different, less worthy race.” Others have called her a “self-hating Jew.” To back this up, the fact is cited that she published in rightwing periodicals in the 1930s, and even wrote to Marshal Petain of her dislike of Jews. (She never received a reply from him.)
Her translator Sandra Smith, among others, has come to Nemirovsky’s defense, claiming that she was only trying to save her life. “Everybody was being published in those rightwing papers at the time,” says Smith.
Certainly the portrayal of some Jews in “David Golder” is far from complimentary. (“Suite Francaise” has no Jewish characters in it.) But the depiction of women is even worse. Does this make Nemirovsky anti-female? She and her mother had a daggers-drawn relationship that was, by all accounts, never ameliorated. Was Nemirovsky, through prose, digging into the soul of her own mother, who wished that she, her daughter, had never been born?
To me, the very use of the term anti-Semitic in this context is absurd. Are writers, Jewish or otherwise, not permitted to delve into the personality of their Jewish characters? Are we obliged to do cosmetic surgery on Jews in fiction? Should we even pay attention to hypersensitive Jewish critics who want their Jews bland, brushed and botoxed?
Irene Nemirovsky’s personal story is complex and fascinating, particularly in light of her posthumous rediscovery.
But the real story is in her work. (There are three more novels set to appear in English.) She is a major voice in European fiction now spanning two centuries. Applying the self-styled anti-biases of a cringing political or ethnic correctness will only prevent that beautiful voice from reaching us, as it should, loud and crystal clear.
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